Overview & Objectives

In this unit you will be introduced to many of the issues to understanding and applying Gagne's Instructional Design Theory for instructional design purposes. The objectives for this unit are these:

  • Differentiate between a “theory of learning” and a “theory of instructional design”
  • State the antecedents and influences of Gagne's theory of instructional design
  • List and provide examples of the taxonomy of learning outcomes
  • List and provide examples of conditions of learning
  • List and provide examples of the nine events of instruction
  • State your position on the efficacy of Gagne's theory of instructional design, identifying advantages and shortcomings

Required Readings

Textbook: Driscoll, Chapters 10, 12 (reread)

Available through course website:
Alutu, A.N.G. (2006). The guidance role of the instructor in the teaching and learning process. Journal of Instructional Psychology , 33 (1), 44-49.
Cunningham, D. J. (2005). May you teaching in interesting times , Ch 4. The Impact of the Cognitive Revolution on Educational Psychology, pp 87-103.
Deubel, P. (2003). An investigation of behaviorist and cognitive approaches to instructional multimedia design. Journal of Educational Multimedia and Hypermedia, 12 (1), 63-90.
Kirchner, P. A., Sweller, J. & Clark, R. E. (June, 2006). Why minimal guidance during instruction does not work: an analysis of the failure of constructivist, discovery, problem-based, experiential, and inquiry-based teaching. Educational Psychologist, 41 (2), 75-86.
Richey, R. (2000). The Legacy of Robert M. Gagne. Retrieved Thursday, July 27, 2006 from the ERIC database.

Instructor Notes

In this unit we make a distinctive crossing from theories of human learning to a particular, influential theory of instructional design. Robert M. Gagne's principles of instructional design, as Richey notes, “provide not only a theoretical orientation to an instructional design project, but also have prompted a number of design conventions and techniques” (p. 595). Also, as a way to bring this course to a close we end by returning to principles of Behaviorism and Cognitivism in light of what we've learned about Constructivism. The overall goal is to ensure you have a sound, working knowledge of these paradigms and a healthy skeptical view of any one being superior in all learning and instruction contexts.

Introduction to Gagne
Gagne's work has been particularly influential in training and the design of instructional materials. In fact, the idea that instruction can be systematically designed probably can be attributed to Gagne and a handful of others. It's interesting to speculate how his early work in Air Force training may have shaped his theory. Would is ideas have evolved differently had he been working with college students, or 3rd graders? Given the theorists and ideas we've covered in this class, there's a pretty good chance they would have. Lesson learned: Theorists and their theories are bound by history and context.

Gagne's theory is more properly classified as an instructional design theory, rather than a learning theory. A learning theory, you will recall, consists of a set of constructs and propositions that account for how changes in human performance abilities come about. An instructional theory seeks to describe the conditions under which one can intentionally arrange for the learning of specific performance outcomes. Instructional theories are often based on one or more learning theories, but there is rarely a simple correspondence between the two.

Gagne's instructional theory has three major elements. First, it is based on a taxonomy , or classification, of learning outcomes . Second, it proposes particular internal and external conditions necessary for achieving these learning outcomes . And third, it offers nine events of instruction , which serve as a template for developing and delivering a unit of instruction.

Gagne's taxonomy of learning outcomes
The notion of different “levels” of learning or knowing something is a very useful one in education. You have probably been in or observed a class where the teacher said she or he wanted to help students achieve high-level skills such as being able to analyze problems, evaluate cases, etc. Nevertheless, when you looked at the test items for the class, they mostly had to do with memorizing terms and definitions. This is a “learning-levels” problem.

For example, what does it mean to ask if someone “knows” a concept such as analysis of variance (ANOVA), a statistical procedure that some of us have encountered? Do we want to know if they can
* state or write the formula for ANOVA?
* explain what the formula means?
* use the formula correctly when told to do so?
* know when to use it, without being told?
* know how to interpret the results?

Gagne and others thought it was important for teachers and instructional designers to think carefully about the nature of the skill or task they wanted to teach, then to make sure that the learner had the necessary prerequisites to acquire that skill. Gagne also stressed that practice and assessment should match the target skill. In other words, if we want someone to know when to use an ANOVA, and be able to use it to answer real questions, then it is of little use to test them only on their ability to write the formula.

Of the five categories of learning outcomes Gagne proposes, the one that seems to have gotten the most attention is intellectual skills . It is important to understand that the five sub-categories of intellectual skills are believed to be hierarchical. That is, for a given skill at, say, the level of “defined concepts,” there should be underlying discriminations and concrete concepts that must first be mastered.

A common error in understanding Gagne's intellectual skill classifications is assuming too high” a level for discriminations and concrete concepts. Remember that, according to Gagne's definition, discrimination is a very low-level skill. It is simply the ability to recognize that one object or class of objects differs from another. But discrimination does not include the ability to name the class of objects. If the learners can do that, they have acquired a concept.

Similarly, remember that a concrete concept is one that can be defined entirely by the physical, perceptual features (appearance, sound, smell, etc.) of the object or event. If it takes any abstract reasoning ability, then it is a defined concept.

Here's an abbreviated definition of each of Gagne's outcome categories and sub-categories:

  • Verbal information : reciting something from memory
  • Intellectual skills
    • Discrimination : recognizing that two classes of things differ
    • Concrete concept : classifying things by their physical features alone
    • Defined concept : classifying things by their abstract (and possibly physical) features
    • Rule : applying a simple procedure to solve a problem or accomplish a task
    • Higher-order rule : applying a complex procedure (or multiple simple procedures) to solve a problem or accomplish a task
  • Cognitive strategies : inventing or selecting a particular mental process to solve a problem or accomplish a task
  • Attitudes : choosing to behave in a way that reflects a newly-acquired value or belief
  • Motor skills : performing a physical task to some specified standard

Learning hierarchies
According to Gagne's theory, the way to determine the prerequisites for a given learning objective is to construct a learning hierarchy. A learning hierarchy (sometimes called a task analysis ) is constructed by working backwards from the final learning objective. Suppose, for example, that the desired learning outcome is to be able to be able to balance one's checkbook upon receiving the monthly bank statement. We would ask ourselves, what are the component skills of balancing a checkbook? They might include things such as, identifying the relevant information on the bank statement, accurately entering deductions and deposits in the check register, and knowing to add back to one's ending balance any outstanding checks in order to reconcile the checkbook balance with that indicated on the bank statement. Assuming we decided that these were, in fact, the three component skills, we would then need to analyze each of these into more basic component skills. How many levels “deep” would we need to go in such a hierarchy? We could continue to work backwards until we reached such basic skills as reading, adding, and subtracting. However, the general rule is that one should continue the analysis until reaching the level of skills that we can reasonably expect the target learners to already possess.

It is important to note that a learning hierarchy is not the same thing as a procedure, although there is some overlap between these concepts. To follow the example above, if I were going to describe the procedure for balancing a checkbook, the guiding question would be, “What is the sequence of steps that one needs to carry out in order to balance a checkbook?” But, for a learning hierarchy, the question is, “What are the intellectual skills one needs to have mastered in order to balance a checkbook?”

The learning hierarchy is a central idea in Gagne's instructional design theory. According to the theory, one cannot adequately plan instruction without first identifying a measurable learning outcome and constructing a learning hierarchy for that outcome.

The conditions of learning
A central notion in Gagne's theory is that different kinds of learning outcomes have different internal and external conditions that support them. The external conditions are things that the teacher or instructional designer arranges during instruction. The internal conditions are skills and capabilities that the learner has already mastered (such as those that would be revealed by a learning hierarchy).

The events of instruction
Gagne's nine proposed “events of instruction” are a sequence of steps to guide the teacher or instructional designer. According to the theory, using this sequence should help to insure that the learner masters the desired objective. The framework has been adapted for use in a variety of classroom settings, including college teaching. However, you can probably see that adapting the “events” to many classroom settings is problematic. Most teachers do not use the kind of language contained in this framework (e.g., terms such as “presenting the stimulus”, or “eliciting performance”). In fact, the whole idea of framing a course as a series of skills that can be practiced and performed by students is an unfamiliar concept to some teachers. Think back to some of your own college courses. What skills did you acquire in history, philosophy, or biology courses? Did you get a chance to practice these skills in class? How were you assessed on them?
In conclusion, it appears on the surface that Gagne's instructional design theory is an ideal perspective on how to research and develop interventions for instruction and learning. Unfortunately, it is not as easy as that. Two criticisms of Gagne is that his work is overly prescriptive, that is, there are adequate recipes for developing instructional materials, but insufficient breadth to provide principles for research and subsequent testing. A second criticism is that Gagne is overly focused on the individual, i.e., what is referred to as the micro-level of analysis or intervention. As we are certainly aware, instruction and learning take place in institutional settings where social and cultural variables can influence outcomes. As you advance as an instructional design researcher or practitioner, it will depend on your worldview and immediate context as to whether these criticisms matter.

Assignments & Deliverables

Lesson 7.1: summary & analysis
Concisely summarize what you have read and learned in this unit. Below are help and directions for completing this assignment.

  • Hoe does Gagne's theory differ from those we've already covered?
  • What paradigms, or particular theories of learning, have influenced Gagne's work?
  • What contributions has Gagne made to the field of instructional design and technology?
  • Where do you stand now in your position on instruction and learning from a paradigmatic perspective?
Additional directions:
  • Convey your knowledge of information found in readings and critically analyze in terms of personal position and larger issues at hand; you must cite at least one additional reading found in the syllabus or an education database.
  • The summary and analysis will not exceed 500 words and must be single-spaced.
  • You are required to use concepts and principles from textbook and readings, citing sources in APA format.

Lesson 7.2: Personal learning theory & Application paper #2
See Syllabus for instructions.